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Atlas Shrugged

Published 1957


The final novel written by Russian-born American philosopher and author Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged is a controversial and widely popular work. According to a 1991 Library of Congress report, it is considered the second most influential book after the Bible in the lives of its readers. A complex combination of mystery, love story, social criticism, and philosophical concepts, the 1,100-page novel embodies the author's passionate celebration of individualism, free will, capitalism, logic, and reason.

Set in an imaginary America in a communist world, Atlas Shrugged is a sharp critique of a corrupt communist system and its damaging effects on areas as various as love, science, and industrial productivity. The novel's main protagonists, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, are capitalist-minded industrialists, “Atlases” who carry the collapsing national economy on their backs. Things change, however, when the mysterious John Galt begins a revolution against the existing order, believing that the parasitic society would destroy itself if its competent and hard-working members would simply stop working. But first, the protagonists must learn how to let go of the ties of obligation, responsibility, and guilt connecting them to the abusive community in all aspects of their lives.

As Rand said to her biographer, Nathaniel Branden, the novel explains her philosophical principles in a dramatic action story combining “metaphysics, morality, economics, politics and ***.” Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged with a sense of mission; she said, “[A]fter Atlas I was no longer pressured, my lifelong assignment was over.” Despite tremendous popular success—the novel sold over 5 million copies by 1984—Rand believed she had explained her philosophical views clearly enough and did not write another word of fiction for the rest of her life


Ayn Rand, a.k.a. Alice Rosenbaum, was born on February 2, 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her family was relatively wealthy; Rand's father was a self-made man who owned a pharmacy. According to her biographer Barbara Brandon in The Passion of Ayn Rand, Rand was a precocious child who spent much time among adults, gathering information about the world around her. At the age of nine, she had already developed a strong fascination about the battle between good and evil, as well as her notion of the characteristics of the ideal man. “Intelligence, independence, courage. The heroic man,” she described him to her biographer. Rand later recreated this model in many of her fictional characters, including the mysterious John Galt in Atlas Shrugged.

Rand's keen awareness of her ideological and political surroundings easily detected the problems that would begin to plague Russia in her childhood; she grew to despise the communist rule of Lenin's Bolsheviks, who came into power with the 1917 revolution. Under communism, her family was forced to give up her father's business, leave their home under the threat of ongoing internal conflicts, and almost starve to death. In her biography, Rand remembers that she “began to understand that politics was a moral issue” and that she detested any “government or society or any authorities imposing anything on anyone.”

While working on a bachelor's degree in history in St. Petersburg, by then named Leningrad, Rand studied American history. She told Branden that she found it incredible: “I saw America as the country of individualism, of strong men, of freedom and important purposes. I thought, ‘This is the kind of government I approve of.’” In 1926 Rand got a chance to visit relatives in America; even before she took off, she had decided not to return from her trip.

As a struggling writer in America, Rand went from summarizing works to be adapted as Hollywood scripts, to writing plays (one of which was produced on Broadway), to publishing a semi-autobiographical first novel. However, it was not until the publication of her later novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, that she achieved fame on a grand scale. Her novella Anthem served as an outline for both of these works; in her fiction, Rand described the threat and immorality of communism while developing her own strictly capitalist philosophy of Objectivism. In Atlas Shrugged, her self-proclaimed masterpiece of Objectivist theory, she proposes the destruction of a parasite communist society as the only way to achieve the capitalist utopia. In the postscript to Atlas Shrugged, she described the essence of Objectivism and the novel's major theme as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with his productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

Rand's later theoretical pieces—The Virtue of Selfishness: A Concept of New Egoism, her newsletter The Objectivist, and other works—further develop the principles of her philosophy. Although her novels became bestsellers worldwide, Rand did not write fiction after Atlas Shrugged. She died on March 6, 1982; ironically, the author who used the cigarette as a symbol of glowing human intellect in her last novel lost a lung to cancer shortly before her death.


A Part 1: Non-Contradiction

Atlas Shrugged opens in a devastated New York City with crumbling buildings, empty stores, and closed businesses. It is a vision of an impoverished country in a communist world system, which slowly but surely destroys national and foreign economy alike. As capable, productive workers and business owners are devastated by bureaucratic machinations, they begin to abandon the existing order one by one and mysteriously disappear. In the meantime, the political and industrial parasites support each other and live off of the creative and productive “giants” who remain and must support them on their shoulders. The apathy of the people is summed up in a new slang expression, “Who is John Galt?” which conveys hopelessness, fear, and a sense of futility, as well as everything unachievable and imagined.

In the first part of the novel, Rand introduces several industries that keep the weakened communist system from failing. Taggart Transcontinental, the economic artery of the United States on which all the other industries depend, is the largest and most reliable railroad in the country. Although Jim Taggart is the official president, it is his competent and capitalist-minded sister Dagny Taggart who actually runs the business. When a part of the railroad collapses, Dagny decides to rebuild it with the new and publicly condemned Rearden Metal, a revolutionary alloy lighter and stronger than steel. Hank Rearden, the inventor, is the self-made owner of Rearden Steel and several other related companies, and a fellow capitalist businessman who shares Dagny's work philosophy. The new line is planned to connect the rest of the country to Colorado's Wyatt Oil, the only flourishing refinery on the continent. Wyatt, Dagny, and Hank are united in their battle to preserve competition and productivity in the nation's economy, so their own businesses can survive. The establishment, however, regards them as cruel and selfish businesspeople who only care about their work and the money they make from it.

Although the project seems to be doomed from the start due to governmental censure, the line is completed and has a successful first run; Dagny names it the John Galt line to spite her opponents. In the meantime, Dagny and Hank fall in love and begin a secret affair (secret because Hank is married). While on a vacation together, the two stumble upon a revolutionary model of a motor in an abandoned factory. Dagny begins a quest to find the engineer who invented it, but the search is a dead end; instead, she hires the promising physicist Daniels to try to finish the motor.

In the meantime, with the passing of a new communist law of equal opportunity, the successful businesses in the country are forced to reduce their production. The governmental excuse for this restriction is that the rest of the businesses cannot compete with them. Dagny, Hank, and Wyatt all take a serious financial blow; in his final protest before he disappears (like many before him), Wyatt burns down his refinery.

B Part 2: Either-Or

In the second part of the novel, the decay of the national economy continues. Francisco d’Anconia, Dagny's childhood friend and former lover, seems to be running the family business of d’Anconia Copper straight into ground after many generations of flourishing success. Francisco befriends Hank and leads him to a conclusion that, in an unjust and abusive society, his work is worthless because it can only be used by parasites for their own survival and further exploitation. When Hank is put on trial for selling more Rearden Metal to a customer than the state regulations allow (in efforts to keep a supplier in business), he clearly understands the idea of a noble man's guilt used as a weapon of obligation against him. However, the society still holds some reins on Hank: when his wife Lillian finds out about Dagny, she uses the information to establish herself higher in the hierarchy of corruption. Hank is blackmailed into giving all the rights to Rearden Metal to the State Science Institute, to be used in Project X—a destruction device based on sound waves and as powerful as the atomic bomb.

In the meantime, another set of laws is passed that takes away almost all the rights of individuals in the community; however, by this time even those who decide which laws to pass are becoming anxious because the resources are running out. Under the new pressure imposed by the laws, Dagny quits her job and goes to a cabin in the countryside. In her absence, a terrible accident occurs on the railroad: due to the establishment's incompetence, the Taggart Tunnel caves in on one of the trains. Dagny rushes back to work, followed by Francisco, who tries in vain to persuade her to abandon the lost cause and quit the railroad she loves too much.

Upon her return, Dagny continues to try to salvage the railroad, cutting off some lines to make up for the others. On one of her trips across the deteriorating country, she meets a tramp sneaking on her train. The tramp tells her he used to work with a man called John Galt, a worker who abandoned the factory declaring he would stop the motor of the world before he would participate in the unjust system. With an ominous premonition, Dagny heads out to reach Daniels and prevent him from quitting his work on the motor, but she arrives only to see him taking off in a plane with “the destroyer”—a strange man who persuades the capable members of society to desert what they are doing. Dagny flies after them and ends up crashing in the Rocky Mountains.

C Part 3: A Is A

Dagny awakens in a damaged plane after a rough landing into a well-hidden valley in the mountains; the valley is the seat of Galt's new world. Galt takes her on a tour of the place: all of the capable social “dropouts” gather here to establish their own free-enterprise system. Ragnar Danneskjold, a notorious pirate on the outside, works as the new world's internal revenue service with the goal of returning to the competent all the wealth they have lost to the corrupt system. The motto of the valley is “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” The members of this community are on a strike of the mind, denying the most precious human resource to the outside society which opposes it. However, Dagny cannot stay in the new paradise, although she feels that she has fallen in love with Galt; instead, she returns to the decaying outside world to continue fighting alongside Hank for its preservation.

The country is falling into despair due to the overwhelming economic crisis; Lillian tries to use Hank's affair to blackmail Dagny into reassuring the nation in a radio address, but Dagny turns the tables and instead reveals the blackmail on the radio. Another national broadcast is scheduled, this time to be given by the head of the state, but the airwaves are taken over by Galt who, in a lengthy speech, explicates his philosophy and beckons those remaining to escape and never let their strength be used by the weak.

Galt gets caught; the government, by this time in panic over the impending world collapse, tortures him to make him take over and restore the failing economy. Dagny, Francisco, and Hank manage to find and rescue him, but just then the old world crumbles: the lights of New York City go out, the motor of the world stops. The novel ends with Galt's little army looking at the civilization they will rebuild under the sign of the dollar.

A Hugh Akston

A famous philosopher, “the last advocate of reason” and a renowned teacher at the Patrick Henry University; John Galt, Francisco d’Anconia, and Ragnar Danneskjold were his students. Galt persuades him to leave the society that rejects reason and to join his cause, and Akston accepts, moving deep into the countryside and opening a small diner. In Galt's utopian refuge, Akston dedicates all of his intellectual power to educating others in the philosophy of reason.

B Dr. Floyd Ferris

Stadler describes Ferris as “the valet of science,” who once used to be a biologist, but has become a politician. Ferris supports the immoral communist rule, publishes a scientific book on the meaninglessness of reason, and gets a lot of money from the government to devise the secret project X—a deadly weapon similar to the atomic bomb. Ferris is the representative of corruption in science.

C Orren Boyle

The president of Associated Steel, Boyle works closely with the government to ensure his success in business. He bribes politicians to eliminate his competition, especially the steel industry owned by Hank Rearden. Boyle can sell defective steel because it is the only product on the market; however, constructions of his material collapse and people get killed. Boyle is an illustration of corruption in industry.

D Cherryl Brooks

A salesgirl at a dime store who catches Jim Taggart's eye because she naively considers him a national hero. Before Cherryl realizes that Jim has been taking credit for all of Dagny's visionary achievements at the railroad, the two are married. Her husband uses her to gain popularity as a man of the people who embraces the working class.

E Kip Chalmers

A petty politician whose arrogance and ignorance leads to the disaster in the Taggart Tunnel.

F Ken Danagger

The last competent producer of coal in the country nearing economic collapse. He secretly purchases much-needed Rearden Metal from Hank, because the portion assigned by the government is not enough to keep his business running. The illegal sale is discovered and the two of them are sued, but before the trial, John Galt pays Danagger a visit and persuades him to join the revolution.

G Francisco d’Anconia

In his conversations with Hank Rearden (whom he eventually converts to Galt's revolution), Francisco serves as the author's mouthpiece, preaching the Objectivist philosophy in many areas of human life, from industry to *** to psychology. He is a brilliant businessman and heir to the largest and oldest company on earth, d’Anconia Copper, which originated in Argentina but has expanded over several generations to all the parts of the world. Superbly intelligent, ingenious, energetic, and determined, Francisco is Dagny's childhood friend and first lover; the two of them share the concept of a world of invention and productivity, and both believe in the inherent morality of capitalism.

About his family, Francisco says, “None of us has ever been permitted to think he is born d’Anconia. We are expected to become one.” In that sense, Francisco is also a self-made man: he worked in the mines since childhood and independently acquired his first copper mine at the age of 20, parallel with his college degree. At the Patrick Henry University he befriends two brilliant students with whom he forms a trio of prodigies, the future leaders of the John Galt revolution. As part of his fight, Francisco has the difficult task of sacrificing his family business so that it does not become a tool in the communist system of corruption. He conducts a gigantic cover-up to present his company as still successful, while he invests in dry copper mines and even sabotages the productive ones.

H Quentin Daniels

A young physicist who used to study at the Utah Institute of Technology, but now works at the deserted institute as a night watchman. Dr. Stadler recommends him to Dagny when she asks for someone who would be able to recreate the innovative motor. Daniels accepts the assignment, but John Galt discovers his work and persuades him to quit before the motor is finished.

I Ragnar Danneskjold

A member of the brilliant trio from the Patrick Henry University, who participates in Galt's fight by becoming a pirate and sabotaging the communist world's ocean trade.

J John Galt

The identity of this character is the element of mystery in the novel from the first line: “Who is John Galt?” As the existing world order collapses, Galt arrives as a mythological figure, the savior with a master plan: he is the leader of the movement that works to destroy corrupt communist rule in America. Long before Galt appears in the novel and his revolution announces itself, his name becomes a part of the slang, popularized among everyday people: it represents apathy, fear, and the futility of their life in the status quo.

A self-made man and a brilliant student of science and philosophy at the Patrick Henry University (along with Francisco d’Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjold), Galt realizes that his world can only be saved through the destruction of communism and reinvention of capitalism. After he persuades his aforementioned school friends to join his cause, Galt and his small but quickly growing army get to work to find and “convert” as many people as possible to their revolutionary ideology.

The rebels gather the competent and the creative members of the society into a sabotage operation: Galt's disciples simply leave their work and get petty jobs instead, thus making once productive resources, factories, and industries absolutely useless for the political parasites. Then, Galt forms a new world under the sacred sign of the dollar, a capitalist Atlantis where everything is earned by one's own work.

Galt is the man of the mind, superbly rational, intelligent, brave, perfectly self-confident, and serene. Rand intended her hero to be somewhat abstract and symbolic, almost god-like. She stated, “One does not approach a god too closely—one does not get too intimate with him—one maintains a respectful distance from his inner life.” Galt is the embodiment of Rand's Objectivist philosophy (which he explains in a 60-page speech near the novel's end), her “ideal man,” and the perfect counterpart for the novel's heroine, Dagny Taggart.

K Richard Halley

The composer of music that celebrates individual achievement; Dagny remains a fan of his concertos long after they are dismissed by the public as old-fashioned.

L Hank

See Henry Readen

M Jim

See James Taggart

N Owen Kellogg

A competent young engineer who used to run the Taggart Terminal. Dagny offers him a better job with more responsibility on the railroad, but he quits to join Galt's revolution.

O Paul Larkin

Hank Rearden's devotee who depends on his charity for a living. When the government passes the law that prohibits one person to own more than one business, Hank has to sell his iron ore mines to his friend. Larkin, unable to do business well, lets the mines disintegrate; eventually, he openly joins the communal majority, which defends the weak and unable like himself, and turns against his benefactor.

P Wesley Mouch

Rearden's lobbyist in Washington, although he sells out his services to the highest bidder. He works with Orren Boyle and Jim Taggart until he gains true political power with presiding assignments to various committees. One of his new positions is the Top Coordinator of the Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources, which “kills” Ellis Wyatt's oil business and seriously harms Hank Rearden's company. Mouch is also one of the people behind the creation of the deadly Project X.

Q Midas Mulligan

A banker who deserts the old world, which judges him as selfish; he is one of the originators of Galt's valley.

R Henry Rearden

Henry Rearden (also known as Hank) is a self-made businessman, the embodiment of the rags-to-riches American dream who starts at the societal bottom and reaches the top with hard work and dedication. Hank begins to work in steel mills at the age of fourteen, and makes rapid progress thanks to his sense of leadership, responsibility, and skill. At the age of 45, he owns Rearden Steel and several related businesses; also, he spends ten years of his life in experiments for Rearden Metal, which promises to revolutionize modern metallurgy. Hank has the society working against him, however, including his parasitic family and his manipulative wife, Lillian, who lives to control him. He allows their abuse because they manage to persuade him that his ascetic devotion to business is inhuman; Hank is told all of his life that desire, be it professional or physical, is the lowest of all vices. Also, he believes that his enemies are harmless and that it does not bother him to carry a few social parasites on his back.

Hank falls in love with his business associate Dagny Taggart and befriends the libertine businessman Francisco d’Anconia, who slowly prepares him to stop supporting the society that abuses him. As the communist regime begins to feel the approaching economic collapse of the country, the so-called looters begin to rely more and more heavily on the work of the competent individuals, including Hank. Rearden Steel is decimated through various directives that take away Hank's accomplishments and production and distribute them to the “public” in the name of equality. Hank becomes increasingly devastated by the situation in the country and the world through his encounters with the sinister looters, who have all the power. Gradually, Hank realizes that the parasites can only have the power he is willing to give them with his work, and joins Galt's revolution.

S Lilian Rearden

Lillian is Hank's cold and calculating wife, whose aim in life is to have as respectable a social standing as possible. She is an expert in manipulating people by offering them what they want; Hank marries her because she appears fascinated by the purpose of his life, his work, and his business. Coming from an old family with a distinguished social position and a modest financial standing, Lillian had access to the top layer of New York's society, where she met Hank, a newcomer industrialist. She is graceful, elegant, always in control; also, she enjoys using her high-class charm and eloquence ironically at parties and family gatherings to put down her husband's dedication to his work as something low-class and indecent. Although she lives off of Hank's money, she maintains strong relations with the movers and the shakers of the corrupt system and supports their ideology. Lillian's ultimate goal is to control her husband socially; she gets a chance to do so when she discovers that he has a lover, but her plan fails.

T Dr. Robert Stadler

Founder of the State Science Institute, an establishment of scientific research which was supposed to be free of governmental influence; however, this changes in the corrupt society. Stadler, once famous for saying, “Free scientific inquiry? The first adjective is redundant,” used to teach physics at the Patrick Henry University and had the same three brilliant students who later started the rebellion against the corrupt system. In fact, Stadler and Akston used to compete for the three students, but Akston won with his philosophy of logic and purpose. In turn, Stadler eventually gets caught in the compromise between his Institute work and the governmental corruption, which uses his research facility to create a deadly weapon, proportionate to the atomic bomb. He rationalizes his participation in it until the end.

U Dagny Taggart

Dagny, in Rand's words, is both her epitome of an ideal woman, and “[her]self, with any possible flaws eliminated.” She is resolute, intelligent, ambitious, adventurous and strong; in her 30s, she is the vice president in charge of operations who actually runs Taggart Transcontinental, the family business inherited by her weak and indecisive brother. In the existing social system, Dagny is a threat because she functions on the principle of capitalism: she works for her money, takes chances on new and possibly profitable inventions (such as Rearden Metal), and values her workers and business partners on the sole basis of their job performance. The railroad is Dagny's purpose, her life's work, and her pride, but although her competence and toughness earn her the respect of her workers, the communist supporters (including her brother) condemn her as selfish, unfeeling, unfeminine, and materialistic. At the same time, however, they rely on her skill to provide the services they are not capable of carrying out.

Since her childhood, Dagny was aware that the family railroad was to be her life; she excelled in her engineering studies and worked her way up in the company, where nobody expected her to be so successful in running the place. An uncompromising capitalist with firm moral beliefs, Dagny can only love men who share her views: her childhood friend and first lover, Francisco d’Anconia; her business associate Hank Rearden; and finally the leader of the revolution and her ideological soulmate, John Galt.

As the country begins to falter, Dagny fights courageously not only for her railroad, but for everything good and productive in human civilization. When she becomes aware that there is a “destroyer” who talks all the competent businesspeople into quitting, she goes after him and even crashes into his secret headquarters; she is the only person to succeed in finding John Galt. Dagny is the last person Galt manages to recruit from the decaying old world.

V James Taggart

Dagny's older brother James Taggart (also known as Jim) is an example of a failed individual by Rand's standards. Jim is the president of the railroad who got the position on the basis of tradition instead of merit. He is a weak, indecisive, malevolent man who fears change and responsibility. Therefore, the ideology of the existing political order works for him, and he supports the directives that make him better off than his competitors. The corruption ultimately hurts his company along with the rest of the country's economy, but he does not mind as long as nobody blames him.

Jim hates and fears his sister and her friends and considers them cruel users of the people, but he is also aware of their powerful ability to make the industry work, which he cannot do. He joins the communist majority and takes pleasure in seeing Dagny suffer under the legislative regime he supports; the degradation of others is his only source of self-confidence. He even marries a poor salesgirl to have someone who would always look up to him.

W Nathaniel Taggart

Dagny's famous ancestor, the founder of Taggart Transcontinental, whose life is a hard-core declaration of laissez-faire capitalism. Dagny often finds inspiration in his larger-than-life statue in the concourse of the Taggart Terminal.

X The Wet Nurse

A nickname given to a boy fresh out of college who is government-appointed to oversee Rearden Steel and make sure that Hank's business runs according to the regulations. Although he espouses the current ideology, the boy begins to admire Hank and his work ethics. He is the example of the social corruption in education, which apparently can be reversed with hands-on experience of “honest work.”

Y Eddie Willers

Dagny's assistant at the Taggart Transcontinental, he is an efficient and dedicated worker, extremely loyal to his childhood friend Dagny. Eddie unknowingly reveals all of her plans and business secrets to an anonymous railroad worker, who turns out to be John Galt.

A Individual vs. Society

The very title of Atlas Shrugged illustrates the rebellion of one person against the system. It evokes the image of the mythological giant whose job in the universe is to hold the world on his shoulders—until he shrugs and lets it fall. Likewise, the revolutionary John Galt exemplifies the conflict of one against many when he starts a rebellion against the entire system of corruption that has taken over the world.

Several characters—who eventually end up on Galt's side—experience the feeling of fighting society alone. Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden often perceive their position as that of solitary crusaders, trying to prevent the collapse of the world by gathering as many capable industrialist leaders as possible for their struggle. Rand makes it quite clear that her celebration of individualism requires her heroes and heroines to become isolated: Dagny is the only effective executive at the Taggart Transcontinental, always fighting with her brother and the board of directors to let her keep the railroad running. Hank faces the same prospect as he tries to preserve his business from the industrial looters; when he is put on trial for selling more metal to one of his customers than regulations allow, he stands up to the judicial system alone.

Isolation is another requirement in the struggle, since the secret of the revolution must remain among the people already devoted to the cause. Thus, the new world must be carefully hidden from intruders in the depth of the mountains. With the individualist aspects of the revolution comes a necessary sacrifice of one's social ties. None of the rebels can share their knowledge with their friends and family members, unless those individuals are deemed ready for the conversion to Galt's cause.

B Guilt

Hank Rearden is the most guilt-ridden character in the novel. In the process of his conversion to Galt's revolution, Rand develops the Objectivist theory of guilt and explains how this emotion is used by the establishment as a means of social control. Guilt is isolated as a tool that keeps individuals tied to the parasitic elements of the community. According to the establishment, since “people” in general are not as skilled and capable as the novel's successful capitalists, it is the duty of those who can produce goods and services to take care of the needy—because they should feel guilty for being successful in the first place.

At the beginning of the novel, Hank feels guilty because he does not have any interest in his family's pastimes and opinions. To redeem himself, he lets them live in his house and spend his money. When his mother asks him to give his incompetent brother a job at the mills, however, Hank refuses to be drawn into a family obligation that would jeopardize his business. Although he is not ashamed of his business, Hank still feels guilty for his apparent lack of compassion. His friendship with Francisco d’Anconia eventually takes away his sense of guilt, as Francisco teaches him to apply the same standards he has in business to the relationships in his life.

Hank also struggles with guilt about sexuality. After the first night he spends with Dagny Taggart, Hank reproaches both his lover and himself for the base desire of their bodies (which he has learned to despise in his marriage); his guilt almost makes him destroy the relationship with the only woman he loves. When Hank's wife finds out about his mistress, she denies him divorce. Instead, she plans to stay in his life to remind him how depraved and dishonorable he really is whenever he feels any pride for his business achievements. According to Galt, however, the perception of body and soul as separate is another myth produced by the establishment: “They have taught man that he is a hopeless misfit made of two elements, both symbols of death. A body without a soul is a corpse, a soul without a body is a ghost—yet such is their image of man's nature.”

During his trial for the illegal sale of Rearden Metal to Ken Danagger, Hank finally pinpoints the purpose of guilt in the judicial system, which needs his cooperation to victimize him. Once he refuses to cooperate, the society is powerless and cannot harm him.

C Morals and Morality

According to Rand, the question of what is moral when the individual functions in a corrupt system is problematic. This is illustrated in the ideological conflict between Dagny Taggart and John Galt, who appear to be on the same side according to their beliefs and emerging love for each other, although they oppose each other throughout the novel. The battle between these two characters is parallel to the larger struggle of Galt's revolution against the parasitic world; however, the communist principles described in Atlas Shrugged are ideologically contrary to those espoused by Galt and Dagny. These two kinds of conflict illustrate Rand's understanding of morality, as determined by social and individual standards.

Atlas Shrugged praises capitalist work ethics as inherently moral, since (as Rand's protagonists often point out) the capitalist workers gain profit that is proportionate to their labor, skill, and merit. On the other hand, Rand criticizes communism as a corrupt system, which gives undeserved chances to the unworthy workers on the basis of human equality and compassion for those in need. In the communist system Rand depicts, the damage to the economy caused by the needy's lack of skill and responsibility must be ameliorated from another source: the productive, successful businesses that function according to capitalist standards. The society uses the capitalists’ own guilt as a tool of control; at the same time, the legislature implements a number of laws and directives compelling them to participate in the system. Rand also argues that the legislative apparatus allows for many loopholes, used by incompetent businesspeople to eliminate competition and to profit from the work of economic “Atlases” who keep supporting the parasitic society. This is the center of hypocrisy in Atlas Shrugged: while pretending that the existing social order is concerned with the benefit of the entire population, the administrative ruling class lets the community sink into decay while the looters are getting rich.

Dagny and Galt oppose the described social establishment; they both believe in the morality of capitalism. Dagny remains in the existing system and struggles to prevent its collapse, out of concern for the people and businesses who would be hurt. Galt, however, abandons the country in decay and embarks upon its complete destruction so that the new world can be born. Although both Dagny and Galt operate according to capitalist principles, the effects are different: because Taggart Transcontinental is trapped in the corrupt civilization, all of Dagny's efforts ultimately only serve the social looters she is trying to fight. Galt's work, on the other hand, exists in his utopian world and is untouched by the problems of society. Although both characters are portrayed as moral according to their work ethics, they will consider each other's activities harmful until they agree on the necessary death of one world for the benefit of the other.

A Point of View

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand efficiently uses a third-person narrative that most often comes from the limited omniscient perspective of one of her protagonists. Thus, the reader knows everything that is going on in the life and mind of one character, until the focus shifts to another. The two characters on whom Rand focuses most often are Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden: the story evolves around their memories, impressions, thoughts, and feelings, and the plot follows their actions. This approach helps lead the readers to understand and identify with the character whose life they perceive in such intimate detail. Moreover, through third- instead of first-person point of view these major characters seem to be presented objectively. This device makes the author's claims about the novel's social systems seem more effective: readers who identify with Dagny and Hank are compelled to agree with their (and Rand's) opinions in the novel, and to experience their “conversion” to John Galt's revolution in their own beliefs.

For the sake of contrast, Rand occasionally shifts the point of view to let the reader in on the thoughts of less central characters (e.g., Eddie Willers, Jim Taggart, Dr. Robert Stadler) to represent different attitudes towards the political issues discussed in the novel. The portrayal of the “villains” in the novel is markedly condescending and negative; however, their perspective shows how seductive the ruling communist ideology can be and why it poses such a threat.

B Symbolism

The symbols in Atlas Shrugged are abundant starting from the title: Atlas, the mythological giant who carries the world on his shoulders, symbolizes the class of capitalist workers whose work carries the weight of national and global economy, while the parasitic communist system reaps the fruits of their achievements. The prominent symbol of the capitalist order that recurs in the novel is the dollar sign: it is repeatedly cited by the corrupt communist characters in the novel as the emblem of evil. Capitalist industrialists are condemned by the society because they only believe in money and do not think that those capable of producing have an obligation to support those who are not.

The dollar sign is also the official symbol of John Galt's revolution: he makes the sign in the sky when his fight is over. Dagny even attempts to track him down by following his mysterious brand of cigarettes with the sign of the dollar stamped by the filter. The cigarette is another symbol in the novel: the author describes it as “fire, a dangerous force, tamed at [man's] fingertips” and compares it to “a spot of fire alive in [a thinker's] mind.” Another spot of fire in the novel, Wyatt's torch, symbolizes the rebellious spirit of the individual reigning over the darkness of a society that opposes reason.

Critic Ronald E. Merrill notes Rand's use of Jewish symbolism throughout the novel. According to the Talmudic doctrine, 36 just men are the minimum needed to keep Sodom and Gomorrah from divine wrath. Interestingly, the great sin of Sodom was not sexual perversion but collectivism—just like the communist world in Atlas Shrugged. The exact number of “just men” withdrawn from the world and named in the description of Galt's valley is 36. Similarly, Hank's gift of a precious ruby necklace to Dagny echoes the proverb “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies” (Proverbs 31:10).

C Allusion

Using the technique of allusion, or indirect reference, Rand evokes the concept of utopia—a notion created by Sir Thomas More in the 16th century to present an alternative society as a means of critiquing one's own society. The communist society in the novel represents a failed utopia: ideally a perfect system that grants happiness to all through to the equal distribution of goods, instead the communist society collapses in its own ineptitude and becomes hell instead of the promised paradise. John Galt's new world, however, suggests the possibility of another utopia, outside the boundaries of the existing corrupt order where competent individuals can create and produce freely, without being exploited by their peers.

Early descriptions of the new world allude to characters and places from myths and legends. One of the rumors about Galt's identity is a mythological allusion to the man who has discovered the lost island of Atlantis, but had to desert all his worldly possessions in order to live there in perfect happiness. Another fantastic rumor claims that Galt was a man who discovered the fountain of youth, but realized that he could not bring it to the people: they had to reach it themselves. The third calls Galt a Prometheus who changed his mind: after giving people the gift of fire and being punished for it, he withdrew the fire until they withdrew the punishment. Each of these references, rooted in the legendary, depicts Galt as a heroic, mythical character; they also symbolize parts of his philosophy and sacrifices needed in his quest. Like the lost island of Atlantis, Galt's new world cannot be reached until one leaves behind everything that is trapped in the decaying old world. Likewise, as the fountain of youth is immovable, the reborn capitalist establishment is only available to those who can reach it themselves. Finally, Promethean fire is symbolized by the offering of everything that an individual produces, but the offering ends up withdrawn from the vultures of corruption until the punishment for capitalist success stops.

A The Red Scare

Atlas Shrugged, although clearly set in the imaginary communist equivalent of the United States, lacks orientation in time. As Ronald E. Merrill notes, “The American economy seems, structurally, to be in the late 19th century, with large industrial concerns being sole proprietorships run by their founders. The general tone is however that of the 1930s, a depression with the streets full of panhandlers. The technological level, and the social customs, are those of the 1950s. And the political environment, especially the level of regulation and the total corruption, seems to anticipate the 1970s. We are simultaneously in a future in which most of the world has gone Communist, and the past in which England had the world's greatest navy.”

Nonetheless, the novel's clear warning against the economic and political immorality of communism reflects the America's fear of the growth of the Communist Party in the 1950s, which resulted in the Red Scare. After World War II, the Soviet Union went from being an American ally to being an undeclared enemy due to the threat of a nuclear war. The two countries, weighed against each other as the only remaining world superpowers, kept a tentative political balance in a period known as the Cold War. As a reaction to the growing fear of everything Russian, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated anything and anybody suspected for any reason of communist beliefs or connections to the Soviet Union. The result was an ample number of interrogations, blackmails, arrests, and threats, and the extreme censorship of individual freedom. Although Rand stated her support for the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and openly spoke against communism, she later condemned the committee members as intellectually deficient headline chasers who had forgotten the ultimate importance of individual rights in their blind pursuit.

B America's (A)moral Crisis

In her review of the 1950s in the United States, Stacey Olster describes the nation's intellectual mood as culturally anemic: although opposed to the communist ideology of the Soviet Union, the country's intellectuals accepted the American alternative merely as a “lesser evil.” The country's thinkers, including Rand, feared that the complacent nation would incline toward conformism. As one of the responding voices to the 1952 “Our Country and Our Culture” symposium stated, the 1950s were the period of “waiting in darkness before what may be a new beginning and morning, or a catastrophic degradation of civilization,” quotes Olster.

At the time Rand was working on Atlas Shrugged, her greatest fear was the aforementioned catastrophe: that the United States would succumb to dangerous collectivism and end up letting in socialist ideas through the back door of its weak, if not non-existent, cultural ideology. According to Rand, America of the 1950s did not have a social backbone. In Capitalism: An Unknown Ideal, she said the country's conservatism and liberalism were loosely defined concepts that “could be stretched to mean all things to all men.” Rand's theoretical writings of the time describe capitalism in the United States as lacking a philosophical base, because the country did not have an original culture. In response to this lack, Rand declared she would invent these missing cultural foundations in her fiction. As a result, Atlas Shrugged became her ultimate expression of the Objectivist logic which she saw as the only salvation for America; in fact, Rand would reply to the critics who questioned her about Objectivism that all they wanted to know was in the novel.

C Anxiety and Affluence

With Europe still rebuilding from World War II and using the funds from the Marshall Plan, America was the number one manufacturing power in the 1950s. The country's financial stability, as well as its pride over the defeat of the Nazi powers, created a national attitude characterized by a mix of contentment with material comforts and altruism. Inflation was low, the suburbs were expanding, and the Interstate Highway Act (1956) made touring in the car far more pleasurable—Howard Johnson's made eating on the road better too. When Atlas Shrugged was published, several reviewers criticized Rand's vision of a decaying America as absurd at a time of national prosperity; others also condemned her scorn of charity as non-Christian and inhuman.


Rand was the originator of Objectivist philosophy, embodied in Atlas Shrugged. Did Objectivism ever gain acceptance in mainstream philosophy? Why or why not?

Compare and contrast the Objectivist principles, listed in John Galt's radio address, to those of prominent communist philosophers such as Karl Marx. What are the main differences between these two ideologies? How does each view the purpose of human life and work?

Research the political systems of the 1950s United States and the Soviet Union and compare the differences between the two countries in their government's regulations of businesses. How do these governmental approaches compare to the establishment's directives in Atlas Shrugged?

Research the life of a well-known and successful businessperson in today's America. Compare and contrast his or her path toward success, attitudes, and professional ethics to those of Rand's protagonists, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. Do today's entrepreneurs function by the same standards as Rand's heroes? What are the differences? Do you think they are justified?

Compare the utopia of John Galt's valley to present-day capitalist America, citing specific examples. Would Rand approve of the United States economy of today? Why or why not?


1950s: Mao Zedong starts the Great Leap Forward in the People's Republic of China, placing more than half a billion peasants into “people communes.” They are guaranteed food, clothing, shelter, and child care, but deprived of all private property. Today: China is one of the few nations in the world whose government is still modeled on Marxist ideology.

1950s: The Treaty of Rome removes mutual tariff barriers, uniting Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands into the European Economic Community. The EEC is planned to promote the European economy and make it more competitive with Britain and the United States. Today: The EEC has become the European Union (EU), with many additional members. The Euro is the shared monetary unit of this market.

1950s: The Soviet Union launches Sputnik I, the world's first human-made Earth satellite. A month later, Sputnik II is launched with a live dog on board. The New York Times correspondent in Moscow hears a Russian say, “Better to learn to feed your people at home before starting to explore the moon.” Today: The United States is exploring the possibility of water on the moon in order to support colonization. Probes have been launched to observe asteroids in order to gain knowledge about how to deflect one should it head towards Earth.


Every utopian text draws, if only a little, from Sir Thomas More's classic original. Utopia, published in the 16th century at the bloom of English Humanism, criticizes the existing social, political, and religious order in Europe from the viewpoint of an imaginary perfect society based on reason.

Anthem, Ayn Rand's 1938 novella, served as a basis for her further publications. A parable of Objectivist philosophy, it presents the ideology and the basic plot of Atlas Shrugged in a nutshell.

In her first critically acclaimed novel, The Fountainhead, Rand's hero Howard Roark explores and celebrates the morality of individualism and egoism in the world of architecture. The novel, published in 1943, ensured Rand's principle of Objectivism a cult following.

We the Living was Rand's semi-autobiographical first novel, published in 1936. Begun only four years after her arrival in the United States, it is Rand's fulfillment of a promise given to the friends she left behind that she would tell the world about Russia's slow death. Kira, the young woman in the story and Rand's alter ego, struggles for love and survival under the communist regime.

The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand's 1964 non-fictional publication consisting of several of her theoretical essays, spells out her philosophical principles from selfishness and ethics to purpose and morality, as described in her novels.

Another writer who dared to make a business entrepreneur his fictional hero in the 1950s was Cameron Hawley. His 1952 novel, Executive Suite, tells the story of a man's struggle to maintain a major company after the CEO's sudden death.